How to Buy Used on eBay: A Beginner’s Guide

The post-holiday season is a great time to buy used electronics. Everyone has pulled the wrapping off the latest model and they’re ready to get rid of the older one. Whether you want to save things from the landfill or just want to score a deal, buying used is a great alternative.

There are deals to be found in the used market, but unfortunately, there are plenty of scams as well, and telling the difference can be difficult. We’ve put together this guide to help you navigate the sometimes confusing waters of buying used electronics on eBay.

If you’re feeling hesitant about buying used, that’s OK. Don’t rush in blindly and buy the first thing that seems like a deal. It’s good to do some research. And remember the old adage: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Still, if your budget is tight and you want the biggest bang for your buck, buying used is the way to go. Here’s how to navigate it and, hopefully, come out ahead.

Know What You Want and What It’s Worth

Making smart decisions on used gear starts with knowing exactly what you want, specifically the options available and how those options affect the price. For example, let’s say you want to buy an iPad. One of our favorite iPads is the 2018 9.7-inch iPad (8/10 WIRED Recommends. Our first step is to find out how much this iPad costs new. It never ceases to amaze me how often I see used products listed on eBay at higher prices than the original price from the manufacturer.

Currently, the 2018 9.7-inch Apple iPad costs around $330 at Walmart. That’s for the 32-gigabyte, Wi-Fi-only model. If you want more memory or cellular connectivity, the price goes up. You need to know all the prices for all the models so you can make a educated purchase.

The same goes for other types of devices. If you’re looking at phones or laptops, know the specs for each configuration and make sure the items listed match what you want. Don’t be afraid to message sellers and ask specific questions.

Now that you have a list of models, configuration options, and prices from Apple, it’s time to do the same thing on eBay. There are other auction sites out there, but eBay is the largest and best known. That said, there are some other sites worth exploring, particularly for mobile devices. Be sure to check out our guide to selling your old phone, which has a good overview of different auction sites that specialize in phones. If you’re shopping on Amazon, we also have a guide on How to Shop Safe.

Now that we know what we want, search eBay for the exact model. In this case, I would start by searching for “iPad 2018 9.7” since the year and screen size guarantees we have have the right model. You could also try “iPad 6th generation,” or “iPad 2018 model” and see which has the most results.

Scott Gilbertson via Ebay

Now scroll down and check the option to only show “Sold Listings”. Take the five most recent sales, add up the price and divide by five. That’s the average price of your configuration; don’t pay more than that under any circumstances. Also be sure to note the lowest price, that’s your awesome deal. Finding the lowest price can be tricky. In this case I would sort the results by price, low to high, and then start adding search operators and get rid of results you don’t want. For example, adding “-pro” will get rid of iPad pro parts, and adding “-AS-IS” will get rid of broken iPads. (If you want to hide something from your search, just put the minus sign (“-“) in front of the term and eBay will ignore it.) Our results will then tell us that the average price of a used 2018 32GB Wifi iPad on eBay is roughly $180.

Scott Gilbertson via Ebay

Depending on the item, how old it is and how sought after it is, you may have to adjust your search a little bit. For example, there’s a camp stove I’ve been wanting for years, but listings only come up once or twice a year and they sell very fast for pretty much whatever the seller asks, which makes my average and lowest formulas less useful. That’s an edge case, though; in most situations, this is how I figure out the best deal and what I’m willing to pay.

Now uncheck the Sold Listing option and see what’s currently listed that fits your criteria and has a price between the lowest price and that average price. Those are the deals worth considering.

Remember to check the shipping price. You’ll run into a lot of people who list an item at 20 percent below everyone else, but then charge big money for shipping and the total cost to you ends up being more. Avoid those sellers, they’re con artists.

Which brings me to the next important point: Price is not the only thing to consider when buying on eBay.

Know the Seller

We don’t just want the lowest price, we want the best quality item at the lowest price. I’ve found that, unfortunately, photos aren’t a good indicator of product quality. I’ve purchased many items with terrible photos that have turned out to be in excellent shape, and I’ve purchased things with excellent photos that turned out to be junk. (I returned them.)

A much better metric to judge the quality of an item is the seller’s feedback rating. A good seller—who is most likely selling a high-quality item in good condition—will have a feedback rating of 99.8 percent or better. I very rarely buy from a seller with a feedback rating of 99.6 percent or less.

That leaves a gray zone—sellers with a 99.7 percent rating. In those cases, click the “detailed feedback” link and read through the recent feedback. It could be there was only one negative rating and it was several months ago. Everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes, a low rating comes from things that weren’t really the seller’s fault, like a package being lost in the mail, so it pays to read through actual reviews and see what’s up.

If the seller has a rating of 99.6 or below, I personally don’t care what the price is, I don’t bid.

I have purchased dozens of laptops, phones, cameras, camera lenses, cast iron cookware, musical equipment, and even prepaid cell phone plans off auction sites. In all that time, I have only been ripped off once, but even then I ended up getting my money back. I didn’t get the item I was after, but I didn’t lose anything either.

That said, it probably bears repeating: If a deal sounds too good to be true, it is.

How to Bid

Once you’ve found an item you want, and you know how much you want to pay, it’s time to … wait. I strongly suggest you bid only at the last second. And I mean that nearly literally. I only bid when there are about 10 to 20 seconds left. I wait until the auction is ending, then I look it up on my phone, because I think eBay’s app has a better interface for actual bidding (it’s terrible for browsing), and in those last few seconds I enter the maximum amount I’m willing to pay.

The reason you don’t want to bid earlier is it gives your competitor a chance to react. If you go ahead and outbid someone days, or even hours before an auction ends, they’re going to come back and outbid you. Often my guess is they will come back and outbid you even if you drove them over their original max bids. You don’t want to give other people time to get into the emotional experience of bidding on eBay. Only auctioneers want to whip bidders into auction fever. We want them to never see us coming.

Once it’s down to those last 20 or so seconds, then you enter your max bid. At that point, a kind of automated bidding war begins. This one is not emotional though, it’s pure machine-based, cold hard logic.

The site takes your max bid and holds it, but all it puts into the actual auction is a bid that’s 50 cents more than whatever the current highest bid is. But then that other high bidder may have entered a higher total bid than was shown, so eBay bumps their price up. Then your eBay robot responds, and so on, going back and forth until someone hits their max bid. If it’s the other bidder, you win. And because you bid at the last second, the other bidder didn’t have time to reconsider and possibly up their max bid.

The downside to this strategy is that if the other bidder has a higher max bid than you, they will win. That’s OK, because you already submitted your max bid. To go higher would mean you were paying more than you know you should. So this last-minute method also saves you from yourself. And honestly, I always bid this way and rarely end up losing.

Other Tips

I rarely buy things using the Buy It Now button (which means there’s a fixed price, no bidding). Typically people who sell this way are resellers (they have a large stock of the item and sell it all the time), and while they may offer an OK deal, it’s typically not a great one. The big exception here for me is phones. Almost all the phones I’ve purchased were Buy It Now items.

The bit of advice I have about avoiding being scammed is don’t pay with anything other than PayPal. I don’t necessarily mean you have to use a PayPal account, but make sure the transaction is processed through PayPal. If someone wants a money order or check, that’s a scam. I also avoid local pickup items in most cases. (Vehicles and appliances are the only things I’d consider for local pickup.)

Perhaps the best advice I can give is the most difficult to follow: Try to remove your emotions from the equation. When buying used, think of your heart and brain as the two voices whispering in your ears. Your heart may be set on a new (to you) laptop, but your brain is better at sniffing out scams, won’t get sucked into auction fever, and it’s what you should listen to when you find yourself thinking, that’s almost too good to be true.

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